By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 29, 2006; 2:49 PM
SABA'A AL-BOUR, Iraq -- His town almost emptied by insurgent attacks and sectarian revenge killings, local council chairman Khalid Latif faces a tough job persuading residents to come home.
Patrols by a returned U.S. Army battalion have reduced mortar attacks to just one or two a day, down from a daily pummeling by 20 or so of the deadly shells during September, and work has resumed on restoring electricity and repairing schools.
But a visit to Saba'a al-Bour finds mostly deserted streets in a town where gunfire still echoes and the police station is a sandbagged fortress surrounded by barbed wire and blast walls.
Armored vehicles mix in among the few people still in town, which sits amid a patchwork of dusty, canal-fed farms 18 miles northwest of Baghdad, and U.S. soldiers circle around arriving helicopters, kneeling with rifles pointed at nearby houses.
So Latif, a businessman who has survived two assassination attempts since being elected in May, relies more on appeals to pride than assurances of security.
"I want to tell the men to come back and defend their property and their honor," he told reporters who made a weekend visit with a U.S. military escort. "They must prove themselves loyal to Islam, to their religion."
Saba'a al-Bour powerfully illustrates how fighting between Shiites and Sunnis is ripping apart mixed communities where the Muslim sects had long coexisted, solidifying Iraq's sectarian divide and hamstringing attempts at national reconciliation that could eventually allow U.S. troops to go home.
The surge in sectarian bloodshed since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra has caused more than 300,000 Iraqis to flee their homes for other parts of the country, Migration Ministry spokesman Sattaw Naworoz said Sunday. Some 900,000 have moved to neighboring Jordan, Iran and Syria since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
Roughly 90 percent of the town's 30,000 people fled the sniper and mortar attacks that prompted retaliation by gunmen from the Mahdi Army, a feared Shiite Muslim militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, say U.S. soldiers and local officials.
"There has been some opportunism on both sides to achieve their short-term goals," said Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, commander of the 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, whose troops have arrested 73 suspected insurgents since moving back into the town at the beginning of October.
Thompson's battalion had turned over the area in May to the Iraqi army's 2nd Brigade, 9th Mechanized Division, considered one of the country's toughest.
But the unit's Russian-made T-72 tanks appear to have been the wrong weapon to take on insurgents, and its failure to control the violence forced the Americans to return _ a further setback to efforts to hand over greater security duties to Iraqis.
While sectarian fighting has been far bloodier elsewhere _ nearly 100 people were slain in massacres and revenge attacks earlier this month in Balad, just to the north _ U.S. commanders say Saba'a al-Bour made an especially inviting target because the tightly packed town is hemmed in by canals that make it hard for soldiers to pursue insurgents.
Thompson said he also believes the town's relatively harmonious sectarian mix attracted special attention from Sunni Arab insurgents, including those affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq who have sought to spark all-out civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Fighting quickly created a "tit-for-tat scenario," with Shiites striking back at Sunnis for attacks on the town, Thompson said, sitting in the joint U.S.-Iraqi coordination center at the fortified police station.
He said the return of residents is a key factor for measuring stability in Iraq and he hopes a Nov. 4 meeting of a North Baghdad Cooperation Council will help bring that about. The council is to bring together government officials, local council members and tribal leaders to discuss problems and establish a dialogue.
"The hope would be that all the participants would come to an agreement in terms of what we will do across the area to help the Iraqi people, and the first thing to do is provide for their safety and security," Thompson said.
Latif said about 120 families have returned in recent days, many getting by on emergency rations from both Iraq's government and the Mahdi Army's sponsors.
Latif welcomes aid from all sides, but he said government care for the refugees who are staying away hampers attempts to repopulate the town.
"It's a bad way to help because it's more important to give help to people here in the town. There are still some poor people here and if they hear the government will help them if they go to Baghdad, they'll be encouraged to leave," said the council chairman, who has traveled to the capital to appeal directly to displaced Saba'a al-Bour residents.
Some of those returning find their properties looted or damaged, and as Latif talked, a steady stream of returnees arrived at the police post to ask for help or complain of squatters. Latif promised to visit them to mediate solutions _ accompanied by U.S. troops.
Latif doesn't hold any one village, household or group responsible for the violence in Saba'a al-Bour. All that he hopes is for stability _ and residents _ to return.
"God willing, the families will come back, the city will be like it was and the terrorism will end," he said. "We hope, we just hope."